RHODY LIFE

Back in the Day: Alternative care in the 1800s

(Courtesy of Riley Baez-Bradway)
Posted 1/13/21

(Courtesy of Riley Baez-Bradway) Back in the 1800s, the people of Rhode Island had an interesting selection of doctors they could visit to have their medical needs attended to. At least one of those early-day non-traditional physicians lies at rest in Cranston's

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RHODY LIFE

Back in the Day: Alternative care in the 1800s

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Back in the 1800s, the people of Rhode Island had an interesting selection of doctors they could visit to have their medical needs attended to. At least one of those early-day non-traditional physicians lies at rest in Cranston’s Pocasset Cemetery.

Thomas Wilbur was a botanic doctor, one who used a variety of herbs and roots to combat physical and mental ills, instead of unnatural medicines. Born in 1803, Wilbur married Sarah Whitford in 1827 and maintained an office in Burrillville.

While one could find traditional physicians anywhere in Rhode Island during the 19th century, there was a large percentage of alternative care also available. Other botanic doctors of the day included Benjamin Joslin of Burrillville; Almon Whitman, Lawrence Canfield and John Davis of Cranston; Mowry Arnold of Foster; Albert Saunders of North Scituate; William Greene, Ephraim Irish and Thomas Wood of Newport; John Wilcox of Charlestown; John Taber of Woonsocket; Francis Murphy of Westerly; Solomon Goodspeed and Lucy Harrington of Providence; and Albert Elwell and Tracy Burlingame of North Providence.

One also had the opportunity to seek the help of an eclectic physician, a doctor who combined botanical medicine with physical therapy. In addition, appointments could be made with a clairvoyant physician, a doctor who could supposedly diagnose a patient’s medical issues simply by looking at them and utilizing paranormal abilities.

Magnetic physicians treated ills through the use of magnets upon the body, while bonesetters were actually early-day chiropractors.

Thomas Wilbur and other so-called “root doctors” followed the teachings of New Hampshire native Samuel Thompson, who was born in 1769 and became a self-taught herbalist and botanist. Thompson founded the alternative medicine movement after a lifetime of being enthralled by the medicinal properties of plants.

Because prescriptions from “root doctors” included such things as St. John’s wort for depression, Valerian root for insomnia and chamomile flowers for anxiety, there were “root shops” dotted across the state where such items could be purchased when they couldn’t be obtained from home gardens.

Today, we tend to look at alternative medicine as a trendy, new age idea. However, it’s older than even the era of Samuel Thompson. Used by ancient civilizations, the practice of using natural remedies wasn’t known centuries ago as alternative medicine for the simple reason that it was the only medicine.

Thomas Wilbur lived to the ripe old age of 92, a long existence perhaps attributed to his medicinal philosophies. Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.

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